Welcome to the United Nations

Remarks to the Security Council open debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

27 May 2020
António Guterres

I thank the Government of Estonia for convening this debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
Protecting civilians must be a joint effort by Governments, civil society and international organizations. I look forward to hearing the views of Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mr. Peter Maurer, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
As we meet today, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, causing enormous human suffering and additional stress to health systems, economies and communities. Those that are already weakened by years of armed conflict are particularly vulnerable.
COVID-19 is not only spreading sickness and death; it is pushing people into poverty and hunger. In some cases, it is reversing decades of development progress.
As access to services and safety is curtailed, and as some leaders exploit the pandemic to adopt repressive measures, it has become even more difficult to protect the most vulnerable. This is particularly true in conflict zones, where civilians were already exposed to significant risks.
COVID-19 poses a major threat to refugees and internally displaced people crowded together in camps and to communities that lack sanitation and healthcare facilities. Cases in a refugee camp in Bangladesh and among displaced people in a Protection of Civilians site in South Sudan underline the importance of including displaced people in preparedness and prevention efforts.
My call for a global ceasefire in March was aimed at ending the fighting, so that we can focus on ending the pandemic.
A global ceasefire would create conditions for a stronger response to the pandemic and the delivery of humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable people, and would open space for dialogue. I am encouraged by expressions of support.
However, this support has not been translated into concrete action. In some cases, the pandemic may even create incentives for warring parties to press their advantage, or to strike hard while international attention is focused elsewhere.
Both scenarios could lead to increases in violence. And civilians always pay the price.
The United Nations Mission in Libya documented at least 58 civilians killed and 190 injured between 1 April and 18 May.
United Nations peacekeeping operations are one of the most effective means of protecting civilians in conflict zones around the world. Our blue helmets are now supporting national authorities in their response to the pandemic, by protecting healthcare and humanitarian workers and facilitating access to aid and protection.
I saw for myself last year how our mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO, made an important contribution to the successful efforts against the Ebola outbreak in the east of the country.
Today, our peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA, is working closely with the authorities and security services to find new ways to serve the population while protecting themselves. MINUSCA police are helping to increase the capacity of the internal security forces to curb the spread of the virus while staying safe.
In Mali, MINUSMA is fully engaged to suppress transmission of COVID-19 and control its spread, while continuing to perform its vital roles of protecting civilians and supporting implementation of the Peace Agreement.
Where armed conflict continues, COVID-19 makes the protection of civilians more challenging than ever – and our support more important than ever. It is only through respect for human rights and international humanitarian and refugee law that we can protect civilians, including health and humanitarian workers and infrastructure, and relieve pressure on health systems.
But the prospects are bleak.
My latest report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict shows little progress on the protection of civilians, and on compliance with international law, in 2019.
More than 20,000 civilians were killed or injured in just ten conflicts: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. This figure, which only includes incidents verified by the UN, is just a fraction of the total.
Last year, for the ninth year running, 90 per cent of people killed by explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians. I urge all governments to make a strong commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.
Tens of thousands of children were forced to take part in hostilities in 2019.
Millions of people were displaced as a result of armed conflict.
And at the end of 2019, the International Committee of the Red Cross was handling some 140,000 requests from families of missing people. I commend the Council’s adoption of the first-ever Resolution on people missing in conflict last year, and welcome all efforts to shed light on this tragedy, and trigger action.
Women and girls in places affected by conflict were subjected to appalling levels of sexual and gender-based violence. They also suffered targeted attacks, intimidation, abduction, forced marriage, and restrictions of movement, based on their sex.
People with disabilities are disproportionately impacted and experience even higher levels of risks in war zones.
Conflict also remains the main driver of global hunger. There are some 135 million acutely food insecure people in the world; more than half live in countries and territories affected by conflict. We expect COVID-19 to cause a sharp increase in this number.
Throughout the year, humanitarian access was hampered by violence, insecurity, and bureaucratic impediments – often in violation of international humanitarian law.
Violence against humanitarian workers and assets was widely reported. In Afghanistan, 32 aid workers were killed, 52 injured and 532 abducted. In Yemen, there were nearly 400 incidents of violence against humanitarian personnel and assets. National staff accounted for more than 90 per cent of those killed and injured.
According to the World Health Organization, 199 healthcare workers were killed in more than 1,000 attacks in 2019 – a shocking increase from an already inexcusable 794 in 2018.
This month’s attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul, in the middle of a major global health crisis, makes it even more essential for Member States to take urgent measures to implement Security Council resolutions and protect the provision of medical care in conflict.
Last year marked 20 years since the Security Council added the protection of civilians to the agenda, and the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. The year brought several important initiatives and commitments, including the Call to Action to bolster respect for international humanitarian law endorsed by 40 States.  
Such pledges are an important first step.
However, compliance and accountability are essential, and lacking.
I repeat my call to States to develop national frameworks to strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
States must also ensure accountability through strengthened efforts to prevent serious violations of international law, by prioritising investigation and prosecution
I urge all to move beyond rhetoric and close the accountability gap through national legislation and coordinated international action.
My report outlines other actions that require greater global attention.
First, I urge States to review and rethink their approach to urban warfare, committing to the protection of civilians in their doctrine, strategy and tactics.
This includes measures to condition arms exports on respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.
Second, armed drones are increasingly being used to conduct attacks in many situations of armed conflict, including Libya and Yemen. We need to reassert the authority of international law over their use.
Third, we must address the legal, moral and ethical implications posed by the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems. It is my deep conviction that machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement must be prohibited by international law.
Finally, we must tackle the malicious use of digital technology to conduct cyberattacks on critical civilian infrastructure. Reports from several countries indicate a rise in cyberattacks on healthcare facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We must do more to prevent and end these new forms of aggression, which can cause further severe harm to civilians.
Civilians caught up in violence now face a new and deadly threat from COVID-19.
The pandemic is amplifying and exploiting the fragilities of our world. Conflict is one of the greatest causes of that fragility.
Protecting civilians requires us to do much more to ensure compliance with international law and accountability for violations. We must also do more to prevent, reduce and resolve conflicts.
Sustainable political solutions remain the only way to ensure that civilians are kept safe from harm.
Thank you.